HEALTH

HOW HEALTHY ARE YOU?

SPECIAL REPORT Not ignoring what your body is telling you is the first step to being proactive about your health.

CATHY GULLI May 26 2008
HEALTH

HOW HEALTHY ARE YOU?

SPECIAL REPORT Not ignoring what your body is telling you is the first step to being proactive about your health.

CATHY GULLI May 26 2008

HOW HEALTHY ARE YOU?

SPECIAL REPORT Not ignoring what your body is telling you is the first step to being proactive about your health.

You’ve probably been asked a few times today, “How are you?” If you’re like most Canadians, no matter what is ailing you—a headache, a nagging worry— your automatic and unspecific reply tends to be: Good. Fine. Not bad. Okay. You?

That casual response may cost you years of life, or at least compromise the quality of

the time you have left. “Symptoms are often the first sign of a developing disease or health issue,” says Dr. Elaine Chin, co-founder and chief medical officer of Scienta Health, a private medical clinic in Toronto. Most of us don’t pay much attention to these signs. “We grin and bear them. Fatigue, congestion, irritable bowel, we ignore them because they’re

common,” says Chin. “But that doesn’t mean you’re healthy.”

Last spring, Maclean’s and Scienta Health published a test in this magazine and at www. macleans.ca to help readers identify symptoms they experience (and how often and how intensely) that may be clues to underlying health problems. More than 5,100 people completed the Q-GAP online (anonymously, if they preferred). We’ve put the entire Q-GAP test on our website again for people who haven’t yet examined their health status—or who want to find out how they’re doing one year later. The quiz asks 75 questions divided into nine categories, such as musculoskeletal

CATHY GULLI

HEALTH

and urological/gynecological systems. Last year’s results provide a fascinating snapshot of our readers’ health—and show that many people experience similar symptoms.

When Chin and her team tallied last year’s online results, 10 symptoms emerged as the most common problems facing our readers: indigestion, bloating and gas; fatigue and sluggishness; difficulty losing weight; low endurance during athletic activity; loss of sex drive, erectile dysfunction among men and vaginal dryness among women; muscle aches and joint pains; insufficient or disrupted sleep; cravings; headaches and sinus congestion; and unhappiness with a spouse, partner or family.

None of these symptoms may seem all that serious— and on their own they may not be. But Chin believes we should strive for optimal health rather than ignore or get used to negative symptoms until we can bear them no longer. By then, she says, chronic illness may be present. “We need to diagnose and treat disease but this alone is not enough,” Chin says. “This is reactive medicine.” Instead she recommends we be proactive and address seemingly insignificant problems as soon as they show up.

Females, it seems, experienced symptoms more intensely or frequently than males, the results show. “There are differences between how men and women respond to symptoms,”

says Chin; research suggests men usually underestimate them. However, as women age, the severity or frequency of symptoms don’t fluctuate much. In men, the results indicate a dramatic spike between the ages of 46 to 55. What’s more, very young and old people experienced the symptom extremes— they either had the most frequent and intense symptoms for just about every category or the least compared to individuals in the middle range of ages.

Emotional problems are the leading symptom experienced by all people at every age. This may not be surprising given surging depression rates. Chin notes the link between psychosocial wellness and physical health is important. “Mind and body are connected,” she says. A recent study in the British Journal ofPsychiatry reveals that people with recurrent depression have higher rates of physical disorders, including gastric ulcers, osteoarthritis, thyroid disease, hypertension and asthma.

What’s striking about the results is that people under 25 suffer the most emotional and psychosocial symptoms. Sadness or feelings of being overwhelmed or under pressure—to get a good job, find a life partner, or get out of debt—translate into physical symptoms such as sleep deprivation or poor eating habits, says Chin, and “that can lead you down paths to all sorts of diseases.”

Many of the symptoms relate to gastro-

intestinal problems, especially heartburn, bloating and gas. These may indicate bacterial imbalances, inflammatory bowel diseases or even tumours, says Chin. These symptoms may also partly be due to bad diet (not enough fibre, too much caffeine and alcohol), she explains. We may also be increasingly developing “food antibodies”—intolerances that provoke our body to fight foods almost like they’re viruses rather than nourishment. “Our bodies don’t know how to respond, so they reject them,” she explains. Typical food antibodies are to eggs, wheat and dairy products.

Allergies may also be part of the reason why head and neck symptoms, such as headaches or sinus congestion, are very common. This is especially true among younger demographics, although the numbers remain high throughout life for both men and women who took the online test last year. These problems may also be the result of more serious issues such as high blood pressure, tumours or even glaucoma. Fatigue is another common symptom that Chin suggests could be indicative of anything from anemia (an iron deficiency) to heart disease or cancer.

Meanwhile, weight gain can lead to ill-

Emotional symptoms are the biggest problem identified by people at almost every age

MACLEAN’S MAY 26 '08

WOMEN: SYMPTOMS BY AGE

Q-GAP Score

20.00

15.00 -

10.00. -

5.00 -

These charts represent the most common symptoms reported by more than 5,100 people who took the Q-GAP test online last year. Women experienced more intense or frequent symptoms than men, and saw less dramatic fluctuations over the years. Men experienced a spike in symptoms during middle age. Emotional health symptoms are one of the biggest problems people suffer throughout their lives.

<25 25-35 36-45 46-55 56-65 66-75

Age Groups

nesses such as diabetes. It sometimes happens when any of three hormones—insulin, cortisol and growth hormone—get out of whack because of an unbalanced diet, stress or lack of sleep and exercise, says Chin. That can lead to joint stiffness too. Excess weight can also lead to back spasms, and just 10 or 15 lb. too many count: “If you’re carrying two bags of sugar with you then it’s going to have an impact,” quips Chin. People who “overexercise” even experience them because their bodies can’t sustain rigorous training.

Among older men, sexual health symptoms are noteworthy because they may indicate the presence of heart disease. “Plaque in your arteries reduces blood flow and causes erectile dysfunction,” says Chin. For women, the drop in estrogen that accompanies menopause can lead to vaginal dryness that can cause unpleasant sexual experiences.

Chin’s message is simple: if you aren’t creating healthy habits early on in life, you’ll pay for it later. “If you’re not exercising or sleeping enough, your body wears and tears,” she continues. Same goes if you’re not getting proper nourishment. The way she sees it, one thing leads to another. When you’re immune system’s not robust, for example, you become more susceptible to chronic illnesses. Keeping tabs on the clues your body gives you about what it needs is a major key to staying healthy. “The only way people can [practise]

Q-GAP QUIZ

This is a mini version of the Q-GAP, a 75-question test created by Scienta Health. It identifies symptoms that impact your quality of life and may indicate underlying illness. The entire test is available at www.macleans.ca/howhealthy and can be done anonymously.

What's your Q-GAP Score? Read Frequency of Symptoms and circle a number—either 0,1, 2 or 3—and then circle a number under Intensity of Symptoms. If your Frequency of Symptoms Score is 1, 2 or 3, multiply that number by your Intensity Score, and write that number on the space supplied at the right. Do the same for each question in the test. Then add those numbers to calculate your final score.

10. Are you unhappy or frustrated with your spouse/partner/family member?

SCORING:

1. Do you experience indigestion, bloating or pass gas?

almost

occasional/ every few months

almost

moderate/

monthly

always/

(if scored frequency 1, 2 or 3) mild moderate severe

2. Do you feel fatigued or sluggish?

3. Do you gain weight or have difficulty losing weight?

2 3x12 3

4. Do you have low endurance or stamina when engaged in a sport-like activity?

1 2 3

5. Any loss of sex drive? Any erectile difficulties/vaginal dryness?

3x1 2 3

6. Do your muscles ache or do you ever experience joint pain or stiffness? 0

3x1 2 3 =

7. Do you sleep too little or have difficulty falling asleep, or frequently wake up?

3x1 2

8. Do you have hunger spells or cravings?

3x1 2

9. Do you get headaches/migraines and feel congested?

3x1 2

2 or less: Stay well. Aim to be symptom free! 3 to 6: Health watch. Symptoms may be putting you at risk for disease. 7 to 9: Pay attention. Symptoms may be affecting your quality of life, a warning of disease risk. 10 or more: Take action. You need immediate attention.

MEN: SYMPTOMS BY AGE

Q-GAP Score

• • • • Gastrointestinal

• • • • Head and Neck

• • • • Musculoskeletal

Urological/Gynecological Emotional Health Psychosocial Issues

MACLEAN’S MAY 26 ’08

preventative health is to be aware of their symptoms and disease risk,” she says. The best news: “It’s never too late to get started.”

MACLEAN’S MAY 26 ’08

How healthy are you? For the second year in a row, Maclean’s, in conjunction with recognized international experts, is asking readers to think hard about their physical, mental and emotional well-being. The stories and self-assessment tools that follow are the first step in finding out.

Next time you get on a scale, consider where you carry any excess weight. Belly fat, says Dr. Jean-Pierre Després, a scientist at Université Laval in Quebec City, is “the cholesterol of the 2lst century” (page 52). It could be a major factor in developing heart disease, just as bad as smoking or high blood pressure. Learning how to measure your waistline and what that measurement means could be an important preventative health tool.

Depression, meanwhile, is already the biggest cause of disability, according to the World Health Organization, and it’s becoming more common. For every bout of depression a person experiences, the chance of having another episode goes up 16 per cent. Relapses are often worse. A groundbreaking new treatment (page 56) that combines meditation with conventional talk therapy or drugs is cutting the rate of relapse in half.

When it comes to drinking alcohol, more and more Canadians are enjoying it; 80 per cent over the age of 15 do so. Alcohol sales have risen in excess of $1 billion in two years. Also increasing is the rate of alcoholism (page 59). Doctors have trouble diagnosing it, and people don’t always recognize their addiction until they’re suffering consequences such as job loss or gastrointestinal problems.

That any of us wants to live well and long is obvious. But a few populations are a lot better at it than most (page 60). Explorer Dan Buettner has identified four areas around the globe where people boast the lengthiest lifespans. He examines how they do it, and recommends how we can too.

Ironically, for most of us, preserving our health—and extending our longevity—becomes increasingly important the older or sicker we get or as friends and family die. “We have 35 trillion cells that flip over every eight years,” says Buettner, “and every time they replicate there’s an error.” That’s why we get wrinkles, and our eyes and hearing go. “We don’t know how to stop that,” he says. “We have got to get good at addressing the things [we can change] that foreshorten our lives.” Paying attention to your symptoms is a wise start before seeing a family doctor. M

ON THE WEB: To complete the full Q-GAP test visit www.macleans.ca/howhealthy